Wildland Fire Boots
Boots are a hot topic. Many discussions and debates happen on the fireline about which brand makes the best in terms of quality and longevity. I’ve tried multiple brands over the years and some have been great and some have been awful. There’s lots of great options. A lot of it comes down to personal preference, so read reviews, try some on in stores if you can, and break them in before you start work.
What to look for in a boot:
According to National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) safety/PPE guidelines: Personnel assigned to wildland fires must wear a minimum of 8-inch high (measured from the bottom of the heel to the top of the boot), lace-type exterior leather work boots with Vibram-type, melt-resistant soles. A lot of boots feature a lug sole and heel. The heel lessens foot and lower-leg strain when hiking in steep terrain, but many boot brands are coming out with mountaineer-style, flat-soled boots that also meet NIFC standards. It’s personal preference which style you like better. Mountaineer-style boots tend to be lighter than traditional logger-style lug soled boots, but don’t hike as well in steep terrain or up and over varied terrain.
Make sure it says it meets protective clothing and equipment for wildland firefighting in accordance with NFPA 1977. It will say this somewhere on the tags for the boots or online in the description. This means that it fits the NIFC guidelines on what is acceptable on the fireline. If you buy from an established wildland boot brand this is a given, but if you are looking at brands that also make general work boots, this is what defines it as fire-specific in terms of standing up to heat and abuse.
Prices will range from $120-$500+ depending on brand, if it’s custom-made, and if it’s rebuildable. Stitching around the bottom edge of the sole to keep the upper attached to the sole and/or screws going up from the sole into the boot are signs that it’s not just glued together.
Note: Every three years (if you work on a federal wildland crew), you get a $300 boot stipend. It’s a reimbursement on your paycheck, and there are lots of little rules about receipts, when you can buy them, and what all the stipend covers, so make sure and talk to your supervisor if you’re starting your first fire job so that you follow the rules and get reimbursed.
As you’re trying them on in store, wear the socks you’ll be working in, go outside, jump off things, walk up and down inclines to feel where they may rub and give you blisters. All boots have a break in period but some will feel better than others out of the box. Try lacing them tighter or looser on the foot and ankle to see what feels the best and gives you the most ankle support. Everyone’s feet are different and you may to have to lace one boot differently from the other. My right boot and my left look completely different when laced, it took lots of trail and error, but they were so much more comfortable once I figured out what worked for me.
Don’t buy steel-toe. I don’t understand why some fire blogs even talk about this as an option. Metal conducts heat very well, which is what you don’t want your boot to do on the fireline and if a tree crashed onto your boot, you will most likely lose toes from the steel-toe cap slicing them off.
How to break in your new boots:
WEAR THEM! A LOT. Around the house, out and about, and then work up to hiking in them over varied terrain. This will break them in gently and mold them to your feet. It will also let you know what areas pose problems in terms of hot spots so you know before you have to hike long distances in them. I use duct tape on areas of my feet that get hot spots and that works for me to prevent blisters. Moleskin always rolls up and falls off in my experience, but it works for other people.
How to take care of your boots:
Get a Boot Conditioner that you don’t mind getting down and dirty with. There are tons of options. It’s not a fun or clean process, but it’s the best way I’ve found to keep my boot leather in good shape by conditioning and sealing it throughout fire season. I wait until they’ve dried out if they are wet or have mud on them and then use an old toothbrush to brush all the dried crud off and then a clean rag to rub the boot oil in. Make sure to get every bit of leather, around the eyelets, and down the tongue. If I’m being honest, I don’t do this as much as I should, but once a month or whenever they are looking really dried out is a good standard. Some people do it after every two-week roll.
Now let’s talk boot brands!
The brand that didn’t work for me:
My first season I bought a pair of Georgia’s. They barely lasted three months. They are one of the cheapest pairs of boots you can get (mine were $140) and if you’re going to be on an engine or not hike very much (such as on a volunteer fire department that rarely does wildland firefighting), these can be an okay choice, but my hand crew hiked all the time over lots of sharp rocks and in hot areas. By the third month the soles were peeling away from the uppers and I had to repair them with lots of tiny screws and shoe glue to keep them going through fire season. My last day, I promptly threw them away. Never again.
I’ve heard similar stories with Red Wing boots. They hold up for a season or two if you’re not hiking much. It’s up to you if you want to invest the money in good boots that will last lots of fire seasons or if you’re not sure you’ll want to do fire for more than a season you may get by with lesser quality boots.
The brands I recommend:
My second season I bought a pair of White’s Hathorn Explorer women-specific boots that I randomly found on sale at a ranch supply store in Montana. They lasted me three seasons and held up pretty well. Over time, the leather dried out (despite trying my best to keep them oiled and cared for) and became really stiff and warped. The soles got really packed down inside from molding to my feet and the lug soles are pretty worn down. I use them as my back up pair that I keep in my volunteer fire locker for when I go on wildfire calls with my station. White’s Hathorn/Explorer lines are on the cheaper end of wildfire boots (I found them online for around $275-$300 depending on the website), but overall they held up well enough for a boot that isn’t custom. They are rebuildable, but I’m not sure I want to invest in a new sole for them.
White’s Smokejumper Boots are well-liked and a classic choice for many reasons. Heaps of wildland firefighters use these if you want to go big and invest in a quality pair of boots from the beginning. They cost $430-480 depending on the website. All of White’s boots are rebuildable, so you can have new soles built and keep your boots going for years.
My fifth season I qualified for another $300 government boot stipend (you get one every three years) so I splurged and got a pair of custom Nick’s Hot Shot Contenders. I remember the boots being around $450 when I bought them, but the 2019 version is $490 on the Nick’s website. The custom fitting process was easy to do. You stand on a paper guide and trace your feet and then you measure different parts of your foot and record them for Nick’s to reference. This is how I found out one of my feet is bigger around in the instep than the other. I finally understood why it was so much more comfortable for me to tie my boot laces in different pattens on each foot.
The quality is great. All Nick’s Boots are also rebuildable, which is great for a custom boot to keep going and not have to go through the break-in period again. I’ve used then exclusively the last two fire seasons and they’ve held up really well and I will definitely send them in to get rebuilt when they are worn out. A few things I should point out: They were ROUGH to break-in. I had some hot spots that wouldn’t go away for a few weeks, and they are bigger overall than my Explorers are. I found myself tripping and bumping my feet on things a lot in the beginning because of the size difference. Ever since they broke in and I got used to their size, they’ve been awesome.
Other brands to know about:
The Fuegos were one of the first mountaineering-style wildland fire boots to come out that I know of. People loved them when they came on the scene because they are lightweight and less clunky than logger-style boots. They cost $350-370 depending on the website and they aren’t rebuildable so you may be buying more pairs of boots overall if you stay in fire.
One issue I’ve seen in the past is that the soles are glued so they can easily detach from the upper if you’re working in a really hot area. Scarpa has since improved the boots and they are supposed to hold up longer than the original version by being rated to temperatures around 500 degrees F and be better quality overall.
The Glacier is also a moutaineering-style boot. It meets NFPA 1977 standards, but has issues with the glued soles delaminating so it’s billed as a project work, fire clean up, and hiking boot, but not a fireline boot since it preforms poorly in high heat situations. Reviews also say they don’t last more than a season. They cost $290.
One of my coworkers loves his HAIX Missoula boots. They are similar to the Scarpa Fuegos in look and that they are lighter than traditional logger-style boots. He says they are great for hiking and he’s less tired because of the weight and comfort. They are one of the least expensive boots at $289. A popular complaint about this style boot is that they are really hot and don’t breathe well, but HAIX claims on their website that these are more breathable than comparable wildland mountaineering-style boots.
This brand has made work boots for decades and have branched out into wildland fire boots recently, notably their Tactical Firefighter. It looks like a mash-up between a classic logger and mountaineering-style boot and costs $350, which is also on the less expensive side. They also make a traditional logger style, the Flashpoint II which costs $400.
Drew’s has been making work boots since 1918. They make a variety of classic logger-style wildland boots for men and women that are customizable and rebuildable. Boots are priced from $299 to $499 so there are lots of options.